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'Quicker, Stronger' Eriksson Ek Ready for Training Camp

Swedish forward getting an early jump on camp at Traverse City Prospects Tournament

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Joel Eriksson Ek looks and sounds like a player ready to make an impact in the NHL.

Last year at this time, as he ventured here for his first Traverse City Prospects Tournament, Eriksson Ek came in with eyes wide open. Unfamiliar with many of the teammates around him, the new Iowa Wild coaching staff and even the English language, Eriksson Ek often showed flashes of greatness but was wasn't able to sustain success.

But after 15 games with Minnesota a year ago, and three more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Eriksson Ek is primed to come to training camp in St. Paul next week and push for a roster spot.

The Traverse City tournament itself can be a bit of a grind. Teams typically practice just once, then fly to this small town of about 15,000 on the northeast shores of Lake Michigan the same day. After a night's rest and short morning skate, teams play their first game later that afternoon, then follow with three more games over the final four days.

It's a challenge even for those familiar with it. But for a 19-year-old from Sweden, making the trek for the first time can be daunting. 

"Last year was my first year here and everything was new," Eriksson Ek said. "This year, I know the guys around the team and it makes it a lot easier. It's a real tough tournament. There's four games in five days and great teams to play against."

Eriksson Ek left Traverse City last year and went to Minnesota needing an outstanding camp just to earn a spot on the Wild's roster. Even then, he knew it was likely going to be short-lived, with the first year of his entry level contract guaranteed if he played in more than nine games. 

The Wild didn't want to stunt Eriksson Ek's development by giving him fourth line minutes, but his strong camp forced the team to at least give him a look. 

"I thought he was good last year, we just didn't want to rush him," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "If it was a different situation, he would have played more. He handled every situation well."

After nine games, the club sent Eriksson Ek back to his team in the Swedish Elite League, where he would get a chance to play big minutes, play in all situations and also captain Sweden in the World Junior Championships.

He scored 16 points in 26 games (one more point than he had in 2015-16 and in 15 fewer games), then played in seven playoff games there before making his return to North America and the Wild in time for the stretch run of the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

"He had quite the season; he played in the NHL, played in the World Juniors, played in the Swedish Elite League, played in the Swedish Elite League playoffs, played in the NHL playoffs and he played in the World Championships," said Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher. "All of those experiences were great, and with the exception of the World Junior Championships, he was usually the youngest guy on the team. 

"In his peer group, he was clearly a top player. Those were clearly great experiences for him and you can see this year, coming into camp, he's more confident, he knows the lay of the land over here. He's much more prepared to come over here and tackle the challenges ahead of him."

Fletcher estimated that Eriksson Ek made as many as eight trans-Atlantic flights last season, in addition to all of his games played. The message for him before departing for the summer was simple: Rest up, and get ready to make a push for the big club this fall.

Eriksson Ek took that advice, training with countrymen Jonas Brodin, Edmonton Oilers defenseman Oscar Klefbom and New Jersey Devils forward Marcus Johansson but staying off the ice until the early part of August.

"He certainly has physically matured in the last year. He's put on another 10 pounds of muscle, and last year, he was 10 pounds stronger than when we drafted him," Fletcher said. "He's gaining strength quickly and he's maturing, he's quicker, he's stronger, he's faster and that's the exciting thing, and there may even be more physical development ahead of him. He probably has the ability to get even stronger over the next one to two seasons. 

"I think the sky is the limit for this kid and I just want to make sure we give him every opportunity for him to be successful."

With a bulk of Minnesota's roster set for the upcoming season, Eriksson Ek may be competing for the third-line center spot with Luke Kunin, who is making his first appearance in Traverse City. 

Eriksson Ek would appear to have the early inside track at the job, but said he isn't counting on that. A good weekend in Traverse City, followed by another strong training camp would go a long ways toward earning a permanent position in Minnesota.

"I think I have to prove myself and prove that I want to be there. I'm going to do my best and I hope that I make the team," Eriksson Ek said. "I'm just going to try and not to overthink stuff. It's the first four games of the season, so I'm just going to try and skate a lot and do my best."

Boudreau says he can already see a more mature, more determined and - perhaps most importantly - a more comfortable version of Eriksson Ek than he saw a year ago. 

The hope now is to build on that foundation. 

"The biggest thing is, with a year under his belt, I like to see the confidence ooze out of him," Boudreau said. "I would like him to not be a wide-eyed kid saying, 'Oh my gosh, look at who I'm playing against.' I want him to be saying, 'They better watch out because I'm coming.'

"He's got that look in his eye when I see him, to go to practice and not just make this team, but to be an integral part of it."

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